Disclosure: Some names have had to be changed, locations not named, and an understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication. The subject did not ask for any changes.
"The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom." —Montaigne
It's September 28th, 2015. My head is swimming, labeling TracPhones (burners), one per contact, one per day, destroy, burn, buy, balancing levels of encryption, mirroring through Blackphones, anonymous e-mail addresses, unsent messages accessed in draft form. It's a clandestine horror show for the single most technologically illiterate man left standing. At 55 years old, I've never learned to use a laptop. Do they still make laptops? No fucking idea! It's 4:00 in the afternoon. Another gorgeous fall day in New York City. The streets are abuzz with the lights and sirens of diplomatic movement, heads of state, U.N. officials, Secret Service details, the NYPD. It's the week of the U.N. General Assembly. Pope Francis blazed a trail and left town two days before. I'm sitting in my room at the St. Regis Hotel with my colleague and brother in arms, Espinoza.
Espinoza and I have traveled many roads together, but none as unpredictable as the one we are now approaching. Espinoza is the owl who flies among falcons. Whether he's standing in the midst of a slum, a jungle or a battlefield, his idiosyncratic elegance, mischievous smile and self-effacing charm have a way of defusing threat. His bald head demands your attention to his twinkling eyes. He's a man fascinated and engaged. We whisper to each other in code. Finally a respite from the cyber technology that's been sizzling my brain and soul. We sit within quietude of fortified walls that are old New York hotel construction, when walls were walls, and telephones were usable without a Ph.D. We quietly make our plans, sensitive to the paradox that also in our hotel is President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico. Espinoza and I leave the room to get outside the hotel, breathe in the fall air and walk the five blocks to a Japanese restaurant, where we'll meet up with our colleague El Alto Garcia. As we exit onto 55th Street, the sidewalk is lined with the armored SUVs that will transport the president of Mexico to the General Assembly. Paradoxical indeed, as one among his detail asks if I will take a selfie with him. Flash frame: myself and a six-foot, ear-pieced Mexican security operator.
Flash frame: Why is this a paradox? It's paradoxical because today's Mexico has, in effect, two presidents. And among those two presidents, it is not Peña Nieto who Espinoza and I were planning to see as we'd spoken in whispered code upstairs. It is not he who necessitated weeks of clandestine planning. Instead, it's a man of about my age, though absent any human calculus that may provide us a sense of anchored commonality. At four years old, in '64, I was digging for imaginary treasures, unneeded, in my parents' middleclass American backyard while he was hand-drawing fantasy pesos that, if real, might be the only path for he and his family to dream beyond peasant farming. And while I was surfing the waves of Malibu at age nine, he was already working in the marijuana and poppy fields of the remote mountains of Sinaloa, Mexico. Today, he runs the biggest international drug cartel the world has ever known, exceeding even that of Pablo Escobar. He shops and ships by some estimates more than half of all the cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana that come into the United States.
They call him El Chapo. Or "Shorty." Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera. The same El Chapo Guzman who only two months earlier had humiliated the Peña Nieto government and stunned the world with his extraordinary escape from Altiplano maximum-security prison through an impeccably engineered mile-long tunnel.
Watch two minutes of El Chapo's exclusive first-ever interview below.
This would be the second prison escape of the world's most notorious drug lord, the first being 13 years earlier, from Puente Grande prison, where he was smuggled out under the sheets of a laundry cart. Since he joined the drug trade as a teenager, Chapo swiftly rose through the ranks, building an almost mythic reputation: First, as a cold pragmatist known to deliver a single shot to the head for any mistakes made in a shipment, and later, as he began to establish the Sinaloa cartel, as a Robin Hood-like figure who provided much-needed services in the Sinaloa mountains, funding everything from food and roads to medical relief. By the time of his second escape from federal prison, he had become a figure entrenched in Mexican folklore.
In 1989, El Chapo dug the first subterranean passage beneath the border from Tijuana to San Diego, and pioneered the use of tunnels to transport his products and to evade capture. I will discover that his already accomplished engineers had been flown to Germany last year for three months of extensive additional training necessary to deal with the low-lying water table beneath the prison. A tunnel equipped with a pipe-track-guided motorcycle with an engine modified to function in the minimally oxygenized space, allowing El Chapo to drop through a hole in his cell's shower floor, into its saddle and ride to freedom. It was this president of Mexico who had agreed to see us.
I take no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals, nor do I have any gloating arrogance at posing for selfies with unknowing security men. But I'm in my rhythm. Everything I say to everyone must be true. As true as it is compartmentalized. The trust that El Chapo had extended to us was not to be fucked with. This will be the first interview El Chapo had ever granted outside an interrogation room, leaving me no precedent by which to measure the hazards. I'd seen plenty of video and graphic photography of those beheaded, exploded, dismembered or bullet-riddled innocents, activists, courageous journalists and cartel enemies alike. I was highly aware of committed DEA and other law-enforcement officers and soldiers, both Mexican and American, who had lost their lives executing the policies of the War on Drugs. The families decimated, and institutions corrupted.
I took some comfort in a unique aspect of El Chapo's reputation among the heads of drug cartels in Mexico: that, unlike many of his counterparts who engage in gratuitous kidnapping and murder, El Chapo is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests. It was on the strength of the Sinaloa cartel's seemingly more calculated strategies (a cartel whose famous face is El Chapo, but also includes the co-leadership of Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada) that Sinaloa had become dominant among Mexico's criminal syndicates, extending far beyond the rural northwestern state, with significant inroads to all principal border areas between the United States and Mexico – Juarez, Mexicali, Tijuana, and reaching as far as Los Cabos.
As an American citizen, I'm drawn to explore what may be inconsistent with the portrayals our government and media brand upon their declared enemies. Not since Osama bin Laden has the pursuit of a fugitive so occupied the public imagination. But unlike bin Laden, who had posed the ludicrous premise that a country's entire population is defined by – and therefore complicit in – its leadership's policies, with the world's most wanted drug lord, are we, the American public, not indeed complicit in what we demonize? We are the consumers, and as such, we are complicit in every murder, and in every corruption of an institution's ability to protect the quality of life for citizens of Mexico and the United States that comes as a result of our insatiable appetite for illicit narcotics.
As much as anything, it's a question of relative morality. What of the tens of thousands of sick and suffering chemically addicted Americans, barbarically imprisoned for the crime of their illness? Locked down in facilities where unspeakable acts of dehumanization and violence are inescapable, and murder a looming threat. Are we saying that what's systemic in our culture, and out of our direct hands and view, shares no moral equivalency to those abominations that may rival narco assassinations in Juarez? Or, is that a distinction for the passive self-righteous?
There is little dispute that the War on Drugs has failed: as many as 27,000 drug-related homicides in Mexico alone in a single year, and opiate addiction on the rise in the U.S. Working in the emergency and development field in Haiti, I have countless times been proposed theoretical solutions to that country's ailments by bureaucratic agencies unfamiliar with the culture and incongruities on the ground. Perhaps in the tunnel vision of our puritanical and prosecutorial culture that has designed the War on Drugs, we have similarly lost sight of practice, and given over our souls to theory. At an American taxpayer cost of $25 billion per year, this war's policies have significantly served to kill our children, drain our economies, overwhelm our cops and courts, pick our pockets, crowd our prisons and punch the clock. Another day's fight is lost. And lost with it, any possible vision of reform, or recognition of the proven benefits in so many other countries achieved through the regulated legalization of recreational drugs.
Now on 50th Street, Espinoza and I enter the Japanese restaurant. El Alto sits alone in a quiet corner, beneath a slow-turning ceiling fan that circulates the scent of raw fish. He's a big man, quiet and graceful, rarely speaking above a whisper. He'd been helpful to me on many previous excursions. He's worldly, well connected and liked. Espinoza, speaking in Spanish, fills him in on our plans and itinerary. El Alto listens intently, squeezing edamame beans one at a time between his teeth. We considered this meeting our point of no return. We were either all in, or we would abandon the journey. We had weighed the risks, but I felt confident and said so. I'd offered myself to experiences beyond my control in numerous countries of war, terror, corruption and disaster. Places where what can go wrong will go wrong, had gone wrong, and yet in the end, had delivered me in one piece with a deepening situational awareness (though not a perfect science) of available cautions within the design in chaos.
It was agreed that I would go to L.A. the next day to coordinate with our principal point of contact to El Chapo. We ordered sake and indulged the kind of operating-room humor that might displace our imperfectly scientific concerns. Outside the restaurant windows, a chanting march of Mexican-Americans flowed by in protest against the Peña Nieto government's asserted violations of human rights, having allowed their country of origin to fall prey to a narco regime.
In January 2012, the Mexican film and television star Kate del Castillo, who famously played a drug lordess in Mexico's popular soap opera La Reina del Sur, used Twitter to express her mistrust of the Mexican government. She stated that in a question of trust between governments and cartels, hers would go to El Chapo. And in that tweet, she expressed a dream, perhaps an encouragement to El Chapo himself: "Mr. Chapo, wouldn't it be cool that you started trafficking with love? With cures for diseases, with food for the homeless children, with alcohol for the retirement homes that don't let the elderly spend the rest of the days doing whatever the fuck they want. Imagine trafficking with corrupt politicians instead of women and children who end up as slaves. Why don't you burn all those whorehouses where women are worth less than a pack of cigarettes. Without offer, there's no demand. Come on, Don! You would be the hero of heroes. Let's traffic with love. You know how to. Life is a business and the only thing that changes is the merchandise. Don't you agree?" While she was ostracized by many, Kate's sentiment is widely shared in Mexico. It can be heard in the narco corrido ballads so popular throughout the country. But her views, unlike those folkloric lionizations, are rather a continuity of her history of brave expression and optimistic dreams for her homeland. She had been outspoken on politics, sex and religion and is among the courageous independent spirits that democracies are built to protect and cannot exist without.
Her courage is further demonstrated in her willingness to be named in this article. There are both brutal and corrupt forces within the Mexican government who oppose her (and indeed, according to Kate, high-ranking officials have responded to her public statement with private intimidations), and hence, a responsibility of the greater public to shepherd those who make their voices heard.
It perhaps should have come as no surprise that this homegrown icon of entertainment would catch the interest of a singular fan and fugitive from Sinaloa. After reading Kate's statement on Twitter, a lawyer representing El Chapo Guzmán contacted Kate. He said El Señor wanted to send her flowers in gratitude. She nervously offered her address, but with the gypsy movements of an actress, the flowers did not find her.
Two years later, in February 2014, a detachment of Mexican marines captured El Chapo in a Mazatlán hotel following a 13-year manhunt. The images of that arrest were flashed across the world's televisions. While he was incarcerated at Altiplano prison, El Chapo's attorneys were flooded with overtures from Hollywood studios. With his dramatic capture, and, perhaps, the illusion of safe dealings now that El Chapo was locked up, the gringos were scrambling to tell his story. The seed was planted, and El Chapo, awakened to the prospect, made plans of his own. He was interested in seeing the story of his life told on film, but would entrust its telling only to Kate. The same lawyer again tracked her down, this time through the Mexican equivalent of the Screen Actors Guild, and the imprisoned drug lord and the actress began to correspond in handwritten letters and BBM messages.
It was at a social event in Los Angeles when Kate met Espinoza. She learned he was well connected to financial sources, including those that funded film projects, and she proposed a partnership to make a film about El Chapo. This was when Espinoza included our mutual colleague and friend El Alto. I learned of their intention to make the film, but I did not know Kate or have any involvement with the project. The three of them met with El Chapo's lawyer to explore their approach, but it was ultimately determined that direct access to El Chapo would still be too restricted for their authorized pursuit to rise above competitive "Chapo" projects that Hollywood would pursue with or without his participation.
Then came July 2015. El Chapo's prison break. The world, and particularly Mexico and the United States, was up in arms. How could this happen?! The DEA and the Justice Department were furious. The fact that Mexican Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong had refused El Chapo's extradition to the United States, then allowed his escape, positioned Chong and the Peña Nieto administration as global pariahs.
I followed the news of El Chapo's escape and reached out to Espinoza. We met in the courtyard of a boutique hotel in Paris in late August. He told me about Kate and that she had been intermittently receiving contact from Chapo even after the escape. It was then that I posed the idea of a magazine story. Espinoza's smile of mischief arose, indicating he would arrange for me to meet Kate back in Los Angeles. At a Santa Monica restaurant, I made my case, and Kate agreed to make the bridge, sending our names for vetting across the border. When word came back a week or so later that Chapo had indeed agreed to meet with us, I called Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone. Myself, Espinoza and El Alto were given the assignment. And with a letter from Jann officiating it, we would join Kate, who was our ticket to El Chapo's trust, then put ourselves in the hands of representatives of the Sinaloa cartel to coordinate our journey. It had been a month in the planning by the time Espinoza and I were breathing the New York air that late-September day on 55th Street.
See footage from El Chapo's July prison escape below:
Four days later, on October 2nd, El Alto, Espinoza, Kate and I board a self-financed charter flight from a Los Angeles-area airport to a city in mid-Mexico. Upon landing, a hotel driver takes us by minivan to the hotel we had been instructed to book. Suspicious of every living or inanimate thing, I scan cars and drivers, mothers papoosing infants, grandmothers, peasants on the street, building tops, curtained windows. I search the skies for helicopters. There is no question in my mind but that the DEA and the Mexican government are tracking our movements. From the moment Kate had gone out on a limb with her tweet of January 2012 through the beginning of our encrypted negotiations to meet El Chapo, I had been bewildered by his willingness to risk our visit. If Kate was being surveilled, so must those named on any shared flight manifest. I see no spying eyes, but I assume they are there.
Through the windshield as we approach the hotel, I see a casually dressed man in his forties appear on the sidewalk, simultaneously directing our driver to the entryway while dialing a number on his cellphone. This is Alonzo, who, I'm about to learn, is an associate of El Chapo. We grab our bags and exit the minivan. Almost immediately, the traffic around the designated pickup point diminishes. Out of my view, someone is blocking the neighboring streets. Then, a lone convoy of "up-armor" SUVs appears in front of our hotel. Alonzo asks us to surrender our electronics and leave them behind – cellphones, computers, etc. I had left mine in Los Angeles, anticipating this requirement. My colleagues surrender theirs to the hotel desk. We are whisked into the vehicles. Alonzo rides shotgun, my colleagues and I in the back. Alonzo and the driver are speaking quick and quiet Spanish. My own Spanish is weak at best. By day, and put on the spot, I'm pretty restricted to hola and adios. By night, with perhaps a few beers, I can get by, speaking and listening slowly. The conversation in the front seat seems unthreatening, just a cooperative exchange of logistics in the facilitation of our journey. Throughout the hour-and-a-half drive away from the city and across farmlands, both men receive frequent BBM messages – perhaps updates on our route to keep our convoy safe. With each message received, the needle on the speedometer rises; we are cruising at well over 100 miles per hour. I like speed. But not without my own hands on the wheel. To calm myself, I pretend I have any reason to memorize the route of our journey. It's that upon which I concentrate, and not the exchanges between the two strangers leading our pursuit.
We arrive at a dirt airfield. Security men in tailored suits stand beside two six-seat single-engine prop planes. It isn't until boarding one of the two planes that I realize that our driver had been the 29-yearold son of El Chapo, Alfredo Guzmán. He boards beside me, designated among our personal escorts to see his father. He's handsome, lean and smartly dressed, with a wristwatch that might be of more value than the money housed by the central banks of most nation-states. He's got one hell of a wristwatch.
The planes take off, and we travel a couple of hours. Two bouncing birds side by side through the thermals over the mountainous jungle. It once again occurs to me all the risks that are being taken by El Chapo in receiving us. We had not been blindfolded, and any experienced traveler might have been able to collect a series of triangulated landmarks to re-navigate the journey. But through his faith in Kate, whom he'd only ever known through letters or BBM, are we enjoying an unusual trust. I ask Alfredo how he can be sure we are not being followed or surveilled. He smiles (I note he doesn't blink much) and points out a red scrambler switch below the cockpit controls. "That switch blocks ground radar," he says. He adds that they have an inside man who provides notification when the military's high-altitude surveillance plane has been deployed. He has great confidence that there are no unwanted eyes on us. With Kate helping along in translations, we chat throughout the flight. I'm mindful not to say anything that may alienate his father's welcome before we've even arrived.
It's been about two hours of flight, when we descend from above the lush peaks to ward a sea-level field. The pilot, using his encrypted cellphone, talks to the ground. I sense that the military is beefing up operations in its search area. Our original landing zone has suddenly been deemed insecure. After quite a bit of chatter from ground to air, and some unnervingly low altitude circling, we find an alternate dirt patch where two SUVs wait in the shade of an adjacent tree line, and land. The flight had been just bumpy enough that each of us had taken a few swigs off a bottle of Honor tequila, a new brand that Kate is marketing. I step from plane to earth, ever so slightly sobering my bearings, and move toward the beckoning waves of waiting drivers. I throw my satchel into the open back of one of the SUVs, and lumber over to the tree line to take a piss. Dick in hand, I do consider it among my body parts vulnerable to the knives of irrational narco types, and take a fond last look, before tucking it back into my pants.
Espinoza had recently undergone back surgery. He stretched, readjusted his surgical corset, exposing it. It dawns on me that one of our greeters might mistake the corset for a device that contains a wire, a chip, a tracker. With all their eyes on him, Espinoza methodically adjusts the Velcro toward his belly, slowly looks up, sharing his trademark smile with the suspicious eyes around him. Then, "Cirugia de espalda [back surgery]," he says. Situation defused.
We embark into the dense, mountainous jungle in a two-truck convoy, crossing through river after river for seven long hours. Espinoza and El Alto, with a driver in the front vehicle, myself and Kate with Alonzo and Alfredo in the rear. At times the jungle opens up to farmland, then closes again into forest. As the elevation begins to climb, road signage announces approaching townships. And then, as it seems we are at the entrance of Oz, the highest peak visibly within reach, we arrive at a military checkpoint. Two uniformed government soldiers, weapons at the ready, approach our vehicle. Alfredo lowers his passenger window; the soldiers back away, looking embarrassed, and wave us through. Wow. So it is, the power of a Guzman face. And the corruption of an institution. Did this mean we were nearing the man?
It was still several hours into the jungle before any sign we were getting closer. Then, strangers appear as if from nowhere, onto the dirt track, checking in with our drivers and exchanging hand radios. We move on. Small villages materialize from the jungle; protective peasant eyes relax at the wave of a familiar driver. Cellphones are of no use here, so I imagine there are radio repeaters on topographical high points facilitating their internal communications.
We'd left Los Angeles at 7 a.m. By 9 p.m. on the dash clock we arrive at a clearing where several SUVs are parked. A small crew of men hover. On a knoll above, I see a few weathered bungalows. I get out of the truck, search the faces of the crew for approval that I may walk to the trunk to secure my bag. Nods follow. I move. And, when I do...there he is. Right beside the truck. The world's most famous fugitive: El Chapo. My mind is an instant flip book to the hundreds of pictures and news reports I had scoured. There is no doubt this is the real deal. He's wearing a casual patterned silk shirt, pressed black jeans, and he appears remarkably well-groomed and healthy for a man on the run. He opens Kate's door and greets her like a daughter returning from college. It seems important to him to express the warm affection in person that, until now, he'd only had occasion to communicate from afar. After greeting her, he turns to me with a hospitable smile, putting out his outstretched hand. I take it. He pulls me into a "compadre" hug, looks me in the eyes and speaks a lengthy greeting in Spanish too fast for my ears. I gather up the presence of mind to explain to him in broken Spanish that I would depend on Kate to translate as the night went on. Only then does he realize his greeting had not been understood. He jokes to his crew, laughing at his own assumption that I speak Spanish and at my momentary disorientation that I've let him go on at such length in his greeting.
We are brought up some steps to a flat area on the knoll beside the bungalows. A local family caters a buffet of tacos, enchiladas, chicken, rice, beans, fresh salsa and . . . carne asada. "Carne Asada," an oft-used cartel term describing the decimated bodies in cities like Juarez after mass narco executions. Hence, I go for the tacos. He walks us to a picnic table; we are offered drinks. We sit in the low illumination of some string lights, but the perimeter falls into abrupt darkness. I see no more than 30 or 35 people. (El Chapo later confided to El Alto that, out of sight, another hundred of his soldiers were present in the immediate area.) There are no long-barrel weapons in sight. No Danny Trejo types. My impression of his crew is more in sync with what one would imagine of students at a Mexico City university. Clean-cut, well-dressed and mannered. Not a smoker in the bunch. Only two or three of the guys wear small shoulder bags that hang low beside their waists, where I assume small arms are carried. Our host, it seems to me, is concerned that Kate, as the lone female among us, not face intimidating visions of force. This assumption would be borne out several hours later.
As we sit at the picnic table, introductions are made. To my left, Alonzo. Alonzo is, as it turns out, one among El Chapo's lawyers. When speaking of El Chapo's lawyers, it gets a little murky. During his imprisonment, the only visits allowed were with "lawyers." Evidently, some who would be more accurately described as lieutenants had been dubbed or perhaps certified by the expedition of power as part of his legal team. Alonzo visited El Chapo at Altiplano just two hours before his audacious escape. According to Alonzo, he was unaware of the escape plan. But he notes that did not spare him a brutal beating by interrogators afterward.
To my right, Rodrigo. Rodrigo is godfather to Chapo's twin four-year-old girls by his 26-year-old beauty-queen wife, Emma Coronel. Rodrigo is the one who has me concerned. The look in his eye is far away, but locked dead on me. My speculation goes audio. I hear chain saws. I feel splatter. I am Sean's dubitable paranoia. My eyes are compelled to drift to Rodrigo's right. There is Ivan, Chapo's eldest son. At 32, he is considered the heir to the Sinaloa cartel. He's attentive with a calm maturity. Like his brother, he boasts a fabulous wristwatch. And directly across from me, our host, with Kate to his right. Beside Alonzo, Alfredo. El Alto sits at the end of the table. Espinoza, still standing, apologizes to Chapo and asks if he may lay down for an hour to rest his back. Espinoza's funny this way. It's as if we had spent these endless grueling hours hiking a vertical volcanic summit to the cone, and now, just three steps from viewing the ring fault of the caldera, he says, "I'm gonna take a nap. I'll look into the hole later."
With Kate translating, I begin to explain my intentions. I felt increasingly that I had arrived as a curiosity to him. The lone gringo among my colleagues, who'd ridden on the coattails of El Chapo's faith in Kate. I felt his amusement as I put my cards on the table. He asks about my relationship with the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez with what seems to be a probing of my willingness to be vilified through associations.
I speak to our friendship in a way that seems to pass an intuitive litmus test measuring the independence of my perspective. I tell him, up front, that I had a family member who worked with the Drug Enforcement Agency, that through my work in Haiti (I'm CEO of J/P HRO, a nongovernmental organization based in Port-au-Prince) I had many relationships inside the United States government. I assure him that those relationships were by no means related to my interest in him. My only interest was to ask questions and deliver his responses, to be weighed by readers, whether in balance or contempt.
I tell him that I understood that in the mainstream narrative of narcos, the undersung hypocrisy is in the complicity of buyers. I could not sell him on a bait-and-switch, and I knew that in the writing of any piece, my only genuine cards to play were to expose myself as one fascinated and willing to suspend judgment. I understood that whatever else might be said of him, it was clear to me he was not a tourist in our big world.
Throughout my introduction, Chapo smiles a warm smile. In fact, in what would be a seven-hour sit-down, I saw him without that smile only in brief flashes. As has been said of many notorious men, he has an indisputable charisma. When I ask about his dynamic with the Mexican government, he pauses. "Talking about politicians, I keep my opinion to myself. They go do their thing and I do mine."
See footage of El Chapo after his recapture below:
Beneath his smile, there is a doubtlessness to his facial expression. A question comes to mind as I observe his face. Both as he speaks as while he listens. What is it that removes all doubt from a man's eyes? Is it power? Admirable clarity? Or soullessness? Soullessness...wasn't it that that my moral conditioning was obliged to recognize in him? Wasn't it soullessness that I must perceive in him for myself to be perceived here as other than a Pollyanna? An apologist? I tried hard, folks. I really did. And reminded myself over and over of the incredible life loss, the devastation existing in all corners of the narco world. "I don't want to be portrayed as a nun," El Chapo says. Though this portrayal had not occurred to me. This simple man from a simple place, surrounded by the simple affections of his sons to their father, and his toward them, does not initially strike me as the big bad wolf of lore. His presence conjures questions of cultural complexity and context, of survivalists and capitalists, farmers and technocrats, clever entrepreneurs of every ilk, some say silver, and others lead.
A server delivers a bottle of tequila. El Chapo pours each of us three fingers. In toast, he looks to Kate. "I don't usually drink," he says, "but I want to drink with you." After a raise of the glass, I take a polite sip. He asks me if many people in the United States know about him. "Oh, yeah," I say, and inform him that the night before leaving for Mexico, I had seen that the Fusion Channel was repeating its special-edition Chasing El Chapo. He seems to delight in the absurdity of this, and as he and his cohorts share a chuckle, I look to the sky and wonder how funny it would be if there were a weaponized drone above us. We are in a clearing, sitting right out in the open. I down the tequila, and the drone goes away.
I give in to the sense of security offered by the calm of Chapo and his men. There is the pervasive feeling that if there were a threat, they would know it. We eat, drink, and talk for hours. He is interested in the movie business and how it works. He's unimpressed with its financial yield. The P&L high side doesn't add up to the downside risk for him. He suggests to us that we consider switching our career paths to the oil business. He says he would aspire to the energy sector, but that his funds, being illicit, restrict his investment opportunities. He cites (but asks me not to name in print) a host of corrupt major corporations, both within Mexico and abroad. He notes with delighted disdain several through which his money has been laundered, and who take their own cynical slice of the narco pie.
"How much money will you make writing this article?" he asks. I answer that when I do journalism, I take no payment. I could see that, to him, the idea of doing any kind of work without payment is a fool's game. Unlike the gangsters we're used to, the John Gotti's who claimed to be simple businessmen hiding behind numerous international front companies, El Chapo sticks to an illicit game, proudly volunteering, "I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats."
He is entirely unapologetic. Against the challenges of doing business in such a clandestine industry he has ––built an empire. I am reminded of press accounts alleging a hundred-million-dollar bounty the man across from me is said to have put on Donald Trump's life. I mention Trump. El Chapo smiles, ironically saying, "Ah! Mi amigo!" His unguarded will to speak freely, his comfort with his station in life and ownership of extraordinary justifications, conjure Tony Montana in Oliver Stone's Scarface. It's the dinner scene where Elvira, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, walks out on Al Pacino's Tony Montana, loudly assailing him in a public place. The patrons at the restaurant stare at him, but rather than hide in humiliation, he stands and lectures them. "You're all a bunch of fucking assholes. You know why? You don't have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me. So you can point your fucking fingers and say, 'That's the bad guy.' So what's that make you? Good? You're not good. You just know how to hide...how to lie. Me? I don't have that problem. Me?! I always tell the truth even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy. C'mon. Last time you're gonna see a bad guy like this again, lemme tell ya!"
I'm curious, in the current pandemonium of the Middle East, what impact those frenzied opiate economies may have on his business. I ask him, "Of all the countries and cultures with whom you do business, which is the most difficult?" Smiling, he shakes his head and says an unequivocal "None." There is no politician who could answer the same question so clearly or successfully, but then again, the challenges are quite different for a global power broker who simply removes any obstacle to "difficulties."
Having explained my intention, I ask if he would grant two days for a formal interview. My colleagues would be leaving in the morning but I offer to stay behind to record our conversations. He pauses before responding. He says, "I just met you. I will do it in eight days. Can you come back in eight days?" I say I can. I ask to take a photograph together so that I could verify to my editors at Rolling Stone that the planned meeting had taken place. "Adelante," he says. We all rise from the table as a group and follow Chapo into one of the bungalows. Once inside, we see the first sign of heavy arms. An M16 lies on a couch opposite the neutral white wall against which we would take the photograph. I explain that, for authentication purposes, it would be best if we are shaking hands, looking into the camera, but not smiling. He obliges. The picture is taken on Alfredo's cellphone. It would be sent to me at a later date.
When we return to the picnic table, it seems to me that we accomplished what we came to do. We had come to agreement that he would submit to a two-day interview upon my return. As thoughts of surveillance drones and military raids come back into my head, I re-engage the tequila and scan 360 degrees for where I and my colleagues may lay flat and find cover should we have been followed and a raid initiated. In the darkness, it was difficult to imagine a safe place, and El Chapo's world is anything but.
As Espinoza returns from his slumber, Kate, succumbing to the exhausting day's journey and the solace of a few tequilas, accepts the escort of El Chapo to her sleeping quarters. As he walks her alone toward the dimly lit bungalow, I can't help but have a primal moment of concern. I consider offering to accompany them, though the circumstances would certainly prove any protective action futile. Before my adrenal rush of paranoia can inspire insult or injury, Chapo has returned.
But there is a change. With Kate tucked cozily into bed, his crew and he are fast and furious into body armor, strapping long-barrel weapons and hip-clipped grenades. The battle-ready army of jungle guerrillas who had been standing down earlier in the night on her behalf are now returning to what I assume is a more typical posture. El Chapo, too, is strapped and ready to command.
Following this Clark Kent-into-Superman extravaganza, Chapo returns to the table. His demeanor, casual. His battle gear, anything but. Espinoza and El Alto share translation duties. We compare notes on cultures. We ask lighthearted questions, though the environment has gotten far less lighthearted. Despite that, I'm feeling frustrated at having to wait eight days to get him in a corner – to ask everything I think the world wants to know. I feel naked without pen and paper. So I only ask questions one couldn't forget the answers to. Did you know Pablo Escobar? Chapo answers, "Yes, I met him once at his house. Big house." He smiles. See your mother much? "All the time. I hoped we would meet at my ranch and you could meet my mother. She knows me better than I do. But something came up and we had to change the plan." I assume he was insinuating inside information that the ranch had again come under observation by authorities.
It has been several hours, and El Alto and I share a nod indicating our mutual sense: the core of soldiers around El Chapo are getting fidgety. A clock of some kind is ticking in them. It must have been about four a.m. by this time. El Chapo stands, concluding the night, thanking us for our visit. We follow him to where the family who had cooked our dinner stands dutifully behind a serving table. He takes each of them by the hand graciously; giving them thanks, and with a look, he invites us to do the same. He walks us back toward the same bungalow where he had earlier escorted Kate. In a narrow, dark passage between ours and an adjacent bungalow, Chapo puts his arm over my shoulder and renews his request that I see him in eight days. "I'll be saying goodbye now," he says. At this moment, I expel a minor traveler's flatulence (sorry), and with it, I experience the same chivalry he'd offered when putting Kate to bed, as he pretends not to notice. We escape its subtle brume, and I join my colleagues inside the bungalow. There are two beds and one couch a short distance from where Kate can be seen sleeping on a third bed behind a privacy divider. Espinoza returns to the bed he'd claimed upon our arrival.
Now it is down to El Alto and I looking at each other. His six-foot-three frame towers above me, knowing he is inadvertently caught with proximity to the five-foot-three couch, and that I, at five feet nine, am left standing only inches from a king-size bed. It's a Mexican standoff. We'd both traveled hard that day, both slightly medicated by tequila through the night. I only know that if I was going to take the short couch, it would be at gunpoint. I negotiate. "Listen, man. You don't have to sleep on that couch. The bed's big. We can talk and cuddle." With this prospect, I win the negotiation. In his grace and discretion, El Alto makes his choice: "I'll go with the couch." As I collapse onto the bed, I hear El Chapo's convoy drive away into the night jungle.
Not two hours later, we are abruptly awakened by Alonzo. "A storm is coming!" he says. "We have to move!" The dirt tracks of the jungle are difficult to navigate when monsoon rains saturate them. We'd have to beat the rain to the tarmac road. At daybreak, we just make it to pavement as the ocean falls from the sky and great bolts of lightning illuminate the inside of our vehicle like flash-bang grenades. Alonzo asks Kate to drive. She jumps at the chance to break the monotony, and takes the wheel like a trouper. Meanwhile, El Alto hops into the open flatbed, his sleep-starved brain so hungry for oxygen that he's oblivious to the pouring rain. In the backseat, Alonzo whispers to me that there are multiple military checkpoints along these roads, and they tend to wave by vehicles driven by women. In this case, the rain falls hard enough that soldiers have abandoned their posts for cover. Mercifully, we are stopped by no one. Rather than risk being vaporized in a small aircraft by a lightning storm, we opted for the eight-hour drive back to the city where we'd started. Espinoza reclines in the passenger seat to rest his back.
By the time we hit the city, the weather has cleared. We shower in the rooms we'd booked. Twenty minutes later, Kate, Espinoza and I, along with Alonzo, get into two taxicabs and head to the airport. El Alto, who'd spent his two hours' sleep the night before on a firm couch a full foot shorter than he, then waterlogged himself in the flatbed, elects to stay behind in the comfort of the hotel bed for the night and leave the following day. Alonzo heads to Mexico City. Espinoza to Europe. So Kate and I board the charter back to Los Angeles. Our heads are spinning. Had we really just been where we were? With whom we'd been? It seemed such a strange dream. Somehow, with all the planning and the travel, I still hadn't believed that we'd actually gotten to El Chapo. I'd imagined us arriving to a gentle apology, that for some unexplained security reason the visit could not take place, and we'd be going home to Los Angeles empty-handed. But that's not what happened.
When we land back on home turf, Kate and I part ways. I am picked up by a car service. In the backseat, my L.A.-based assistant had left a manila envelope with my cellphone in it. I turn on the phone to the explosion of a two-day backlog of e-mails and text messages. Ignoring them, I hit my browser for updates. What I didn't know, and what was not yet being reported, was that from the time the weather cleared, a military siege on Sinaloa was imminent. Evidently, El Chapo and his men, after leaving us the night before, had skirted through the jungle back to a ranch property. According to media reports that didn't come until days later, a cellphone among his crew had been tracked. From the time the military and the DEA moved in on them, the reports of what happened are conflicted. A source familiar with the cartel informed me on October 3rd that the initial siege had begun. That source and another on the ground in Sinaloa reported that over the next several days, two military helicopters were shot down and Mexican marine ground troops laid siege to several ranch properties. There were additional reports that 13 Sinaloa communities had been ravaged with gunfire during simultaneous raids. La Comision Nacional de los Derechos Humanos (the National Commission for Human Rights) struggled to enter the area but were prohibited. Villagers protested their treatment by the military. By the time news agencies broadcast the story in the United States, the mayhem throughout Sinaloa in those days had been essentially reduced to a nearly successful raid that had surgically targeted only Chapo and his men, and claimed he had been injured in flight with face and leg wounds.
El Chapo's own account would later be shared with me, through a BBM exchange he had with Kate. "On October 6th, there was an operation....Two helicopters and 6 BlackHawks began a confrontation upon their arrival. The marines dispersed throughout the farms. The families had to escape and abandon their homes with the fear of being killed. We still don't know how many dead in total." When asked about the reports of his own injuries, Chapo responded, "Not like they said. I only hurt my leg a little bit."
Four days later, I fly from Los Angeles to Lima, Peru, to participate in a World Bank panel discussion. After a few days in Lima, and an overnight in Managua, Nicaragua, to visit an old friend, it's October 11th – the day El Chapo and I had agreed to meet. Understandably, he and his crew had gone dark during the raids. Nonetheless, I board an available flight to a nearby Mexican city, and leave a message for Alonzo that I would wait in that Mexican airport for several hours, to make sure they know that I had honored my commitment to return on the eighth day. I land in the late afternoon, then sit around the airport until the evening hours, hoping a stranger will tap me on the shoulder and tell me he is a friend of Alonzo's and that I should leave with him. It also occurs to me, once again, that I might be under the eyes of Mexican intelligence or the DEA. In either case, no contact is made. So I board a flight later that evening on my own, and return to Los Angeles.
In the weeks that follow, I continue to make attempts to contact El Chapo. In that time, massive sweeps by military and law enforcement lead to hundreds of arrests, seizures and several extraditions of cartel personnel to the United States. Reports that a rising drug gang, the CJNG (Jalisco New Generation Cartel), may have been involved with El Chapo's prison escape and that CJNG may become, in effect, the paramilitary wing of the Sinaloa cartel, have added to governmental concerns. In other words, with the water boiling, our cartel intermediaries had gone principally off radar, or possibly been arrested, or killed.
Finally, Kate is able to re-establish contact through a web of BBM devices. But the heat of enforcement and surveillance had become extreme. I even received a credible tip that the DEA had indeed become aware of our journey to Mexico. Booking any flight to Mexico now would surely raise red flags. I make a plan to hide myself in the trunk of a friend's car and be driven to a waiting rental vehicle. I would then drive the rental from L.A. to Yuma, Arizona, then cross the border at Algodones. I'm familiar with this crossing – papers are not checked, and vehicles are waved through without scrutiny. I'd then drive the 80-some-odd miles from the border to the Grande Desierto, and the village of El Golfo de Santa Clara, rendezvousing with a cartel plane that could take me to El Chapo. But Kate is insistent that if I am to make that journey, she would have to come with me. The route is relatively safe, but there are some narco-controlled areas, including a few that are not friendly to the Sinaloa cartel. There were also two military checkpoints the last time I had driven that route. The idea of a gringo driving with a Mexican film star would likely draw too much attention, but Kate would have it no other way. It becomes apparent that the risks outweigh the benefits on all sides, and we decide that, instead, I will send my questions to El Chapo by BBM. He agrees that he will record his responses on videotape. Without being present, I could neither control the questioning nor prod for elaborations to his responses. In addition, every question sent first had to be translated into Spanish. Remarkably, while Chapo has access to hundreds of soldiers and associates at all times, apparently not one speaks English.
At the end of each day that passed without receipt of the video, Kate would reassure me that it was only one more day away. But each night, El Chapo contacted her with more delays and apparent doubts. Not about my inquiries, but seemingly about how to make a tape of himself. "Kate, let me get this straight. The guy runs a multibillion-dollar business with a network of at least 50 countries, and there's not one fucker down there in the jungle with him who speaks a word of friggin' English? Now tonight, you're telling me his BBM went on the blink, that he's got hardly any access to a goddamn computer?! Are you saying he doesn't have the technical capability to make a self-video and smuggle it into the United States?"
I ask myself, How in the fuck does anyone run a business that way?! I go Full-Trump-Gringo on Kate, battering her daily by phone, text and encrypted email. In the end, the delay had nothing to do with technical incompetence. Big surprise. Whatever villainy is attributable to this man, and his indisputable street genius, he is also a humble, rural Mexican, whose perception of his place in the world offers a window into an extraordinary riddle of cultural disparity. It became evident that the peasant-farmer-turned-billionaire-drug-lord seemed to be overwhelmed and somewhat bewildered at the notion that he may be of interest to the world beyond the mountains. And the day-after-day delays might reveal an insecurity in him, like an awkward teenager bashful to go unguided before the camera. Or had all of this been an orchestrated performance?
When those hoops had finally been jumped through, mostly by Kate but at my relentless direction, the only retaliation I was left fearing during my engagement with El Chapo Guzmán and the Sinaloa cartel was the potential wrath of a Mexican actress toward an American actor who had single-mindedly abused his friendship with her to retrieve the needed video. And then an encrypted message came from Kate: "Got it!" I nearly hit the ceiling with excitement as Kate's follow-up dinged on my phone, "...you pushy motherfucker." I'd earned that. Evidently, a courier for El Chapo had delivered her the video. Kate and I met up, I made my apologies, and she transferred the video from her device to mine. At home, I turned down the lights, sat with an English transcription provided by Kate, which began with her note: "The video runs for 17 minutes. Press play."
He sits in a turquoise-and-navy paisley long-sleeve button-down shirt and clean black slacks on a randomly placed stool. The signature mustache that he wore in our last meeting, now gone. His trademark black trucker's hat, absent. His hair combed, or perhaps cap-matted, conjuring the vision of a wide-eyed schoolboy unsure of his teacher's summons. His hands folded across each other, a self-soothing thumb crossing the knuckle of the other. Beside him, a short white brick wall topped by a chain-link fence. Behind that, a white 4x4 pickup truck. The location appears as a large, ranch-like property with low-lying mountains far in the distance and the intermittent cockadoodledoo of farm roosters serving as the Greek chorus to the interview. Throughout the video, we see farm workers and paramilitaries crossing behind him. A German shepherd sniffs the dirt and wanders out of frame.
He begins: "I want to make clear that this interview is for the exclusive use of Miss Kate del Castillo and Mister Sean Penn." The image goes black.
When it returns, so has he to the comfort of his trucker hat.
Of the many questions I'd sent El Chapo, a cameraman out of frame asks a few of them directly, paraphrases others, softens many and skips some altogether.
How was your childhood?
I remember from the time I was six until now, my parents, a very humble family, very poor, I remember how my mom made bread to support the family. I would sell it, I sold oranges, I sold soft drinks, I sold candy. My mom, she was a hard worker, she worked a lot. We grew corn, beans. I took care of my grandmother's cattle and chopped wood.
And how did you get involved in the drug business?
Well, from the time I was 15 and after, where I come from, which is the municipality of Badiraguato, I was raised in a ranch named La Tuna, in that area, and up until today, there are no job opportunities. The only way to have money to buy food, to survive, is to grow poppy, marijuana, and at that age, I began to grow it, to cultivate it and to sell it. That is what I can tell you.
How did you leave there? How did it all expand?
From there, from my ranch, I started to leave at 18 and went to Culiacan, then after to Guadalajara, but never without visiting my ranch, even up until today, because my mom, thanks to God, is still alive, out there in our ranch, which is La Tuna, and so, that is how things have been.
How has your family life changed from then to now?
Very good – my children, my brothers, my nephews. We all get along well, very normal. Very good.
And now that you are free, how has it affected you?
Well, as for being free – happy, because freedom is really nice, and pressure, well, for me it's normal, because I've had to be careful for a few years now in certain cities, and, no, I don't feel anything that hurts my health or my mind. I feel good.
Is it true what they say that drugs destroy humanity and bring harm?
Well, it's a reality that drugs destroy. Unfortunately, as I said, where I grew up there was no other way and there still isn't a way to survive, no way to work in our economy to be able to make a living.
Do you think it is true you are responsible for the high level of drug addiction in the world?
No, that is false, because the day I don't exist, it's not going to decrease in any way at all. Drug trafficking? That's false.
Did your drug business grow and expand when you were in jail?
From what I can tell, and what I know, everything is the same. Nothing has decreased. Nothing has increased.
What about the violence attached to this type of activity?
In part, it is because already some people already grow up with problems, and there is some envy and they have information against someone else. That is what creates violence.
Do you consider yourself a violent person?
Are you prone to violence, or do you use it as a last resort?
Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more. But do I start trouble? Never.
What is your opinion about the situation in Mexico, what is the outlook for Mexico?
Well, drug trafficking is already part of a culture that originated from the ancestors. And not only in Mexico. This is worldwide.
Do you consider your activity, your organization, a cartel?
No, sir, not at all. Because people who dedicate their lives to this activity do not depend on me.
How has this business evolved from the time you started up until today?
Big difference. Today there are lots of drugs, and back then, the only ones we knew were marijuana and poppy.
What is the difference in people now compared to back then?
Big difference, because now, day after day, villages are getting bigger, and there's more of us, and lots of different ways of thinking.
What is the outlook for the business? Do you think it will disappear? Will it grow instead?
No, it will not end because as time goes by, we are more people, and this will never end.
Do you think terrorism activities in the Middle East will, in any way, impact the future of drug trafficking?
No, sir. It doesn't make a difference at all.
You saw how the final days of Escobar were. How do you see your final days with respect to this business?
I know one day I will die. I hope it's of natural causes.
The U.S. government thinks that the Mexican government does not want to arrest you. What they want to do is to kill you. What do you think?
No, I think that if they find me, they'll arrest me, of course.
With respect to your activities, what do you think the impact on Mexico is? Do you think there is a substantial impact?
Not at all. Not at all.
Because drug trafficking does not depend on just one person. It depends on a lot of people.
What is your opinion about who is to blame here, those who sell drugs, or the people who use drugs and create a demand for them? What is the relationship between production, sale and consumption?
If there was no consumption, there would be no sales. It is true that consumption, day after day, becomes bigger and bigger. So it sells and sells.
We hear avocado is good for you, lime is good for you, guanabana is good for you. But we never hear anyone doing any publicity with respect to drugs. Have you done anything to induce the public to consume more drugs?
Not at all. That attracts attention. People, in a way, want to know how it feels or how it tastes. And then the addiction gets bigger.
Do you have any dreams? Do you dream?
Whatever is normal. But dreaming daily? No.
But you must have some dreams, some hopes for your life?
I want to live with my family the days God gives me.
If you could change the world, would you?
For me, the way things are, I'm happy.
How is your relationship with your mom?
My relationship? Perfect. Very well.
Is it one of respect?
Yes, sir, respect, affection and love.
How do you see the future for your sons and daughters?
Very well. They get along right. The family is tight.
How about your life? How has your life changed, how have you lived it since you escaped?
Lots of happiness – because of my freedom.
Did you ever use drugs?
No, sir. Many years ago, yes, I did try them. But an addict? No.
How long ago?
I haven't done any drugs in the last 20 years.
Did it not worry you that you might be putting your family at risk with your escape?
For your recent escape, did you pursue your freedom at any cost, at the expense of anybody?
I never thought of hurting anyone. All I did was ask God, and things worked out. Everything was perfect. I am here, thank God.
The two times you escaped, it is worth mentioning, there was no violence.
With me, it did not come to that. In other situations, what's been seen, things occur differently, but here, we did not use any violence.
Bearing in mind what has been written about you, what one can see on TV, things are said about you in Mexico, what kind of message would you like to convey to the people of Mexico?
Well, I can say it's normal that people have mixed feelings because some people know me and others don't. That is the reason I say it is normal. Because those who do not know me can have their doubts about saying if, in this case, I'm a good person or not.
If I ask you to define yourself as a person, if I ask you to pretend you are not Joaquín, instead you are the person who knows him better than anybody else in the world, how would you define yourself?
Well, if I knew him – with respect, and from my point of view, it's a person who's not looking for problems in any way. In any way.
Since our late-night visit in the Mexican mountains, raids on ranches there have been relentless. A war zone. Navy helicopters waging air assaults and inserting troops. Helos shot down by Sinaloa cartel gunmen. Marines killed. Cartel fighters killed. Campasinos killed or displaced. Rumors spread that El Chapo escaped to Guatemala, or even further, into South America. But no. He was right there where he was born and raised. On Friday, January 8th, 2016, it happened. El Chapo was captured and arrested – alive.
I think of that night, of that calm before the storm, and the otherworldly experience of sitting with a man so seemingly serene, despite his living a reality so surreal. I had not gotten the kind of in-depth interview I'd hoped to achieve. Not challenged checkers with chess, nor vice versa. But perhaps, at least, retrieved a glimpse from the other side, and what is for me an affirmation of the dumb-show of demonization that has demanded such an extraordinary focus of assets toward the capture or killing of any one individual black hat.
Still, today, there are little boys in Sinaloa who draw play-money pesos, whose fathers and grandfathers before them harvested the only product they'd ever known to morph those play pesos into real dollars. They wonder at our outrage as we, our children, friends, neighbors, bosses, banks, brothers and sisters finance the whole damn thing. Without a paradigm shift, understanding the economics and illness of addiction, parents in Mexico and the U.S. will increasingly risk replacing that standard parting question to their teens off for a social evening – from "Where are you going tonight?" to "Where are you dying tonight?"
El Chapo? It won't be long, I'm sure, before the Sinaloa cartel's next shipment into the United States is the man himself.
Actor, writer and director Sean Penn has written from the front lines in Haiti, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. He wishes to dedicate this article to the parents of slain Chicago youth, and to Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, public servant, father and hero.